Jesus is so clever. That is what many people think when reading this passage. Here come the bad guys to trip him up and he outsmarts them with the most clever ploy. Actually, that is not correct. In fact, he did not say anything out of line with what many had been saying and would continue to say in the years to come.
Peter speaks about similar matters in I Peter 2. Paul often comments on the same, for example, in Romans 13. Submission to authorities, praying for those over us and paying our taxes is expected of God’s people. The Jewish authorities of the day certainly understood this. And God also understands this. We do not live in a vacuum, and in this world there are understood obligations through which God can help us learn fidelity, loyalty and a host of good things.
But here, what Jesus was being asked is have the Roman’s crossed the line? It was a simple thing to answer, no, they haven’t. You see, there is a line and it is rooted in our fidelity first to God in Christ. It often plays out in moral issues. The authorities over us have no authority to require us to lie, cheat, steal or kill. They certainly have no authority to demand we renounce our faith as so many Christians found out in the centuries to come when they were burned at the stake or thrown to the lions.
So there is a line, but it is not hard and fast and the Jewish authorities were asking Jesus if maybe Rome had gone too far. Jesus answered it has not. Debatable.
But then Jesus added another thing which was meant as a reminder to those Jewish authorities. “Render unto God what is God’s,” he said. And what is God’s? All things, including Rome and the Roman coins. What is not God’s?
Being good slaves, servants, employees, or as the case may be, citizens is important to God. It is important enough so we are told to work as if we are working for God. Being trustworthy, faithful and hard working matters. Only being faithful to the good news of Jesus Christ matters more. The government, for example, has no business telling preachers what they can and cannot preach, even if the preaching resonates with a clear political agenda.
Hitler crossed the line. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonheoffer penned a thing called the Barmen Declaration as the chief document of what came to be called the confessing church. Of course, the Nazi government wanted to tell all the preachers what to preach. They wanted to make sure the government line was being supported from the pulpit. Barmen clearly countered that notion. It said Jesus Christ is the Lord of all life, not the Nazi government, and the first duty of a Christian is fidelity to Christ. So Barth stayed safe in Switzerland and Bonheoffer got thrown in prison, but so it goes.
Jesus said Rome at that time had not crossed the line, no matter how mad it made some of the Jews. Rome was the authority God placed over the Jewish nation in that age. Likewise, we have authorities over us. Agitation is one thing. Rebellion is another and Jesus knew that as well as the Jewish authorities who brought it up.
Yes, Jesus answered in a clever way, but don’t let the cleverness distract you from the message. Submit to authorities, but above all submit to God, for everything ultimately belongs to God including the government itself and the dollar bills sitting in your pocket.